The Path to War: America and the First World War a Century On

Michael Neiberg is the inaugural Chair of War Studies at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and the author, most recently, of Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America (Oxford University Press). You can hear Mike discuss the new book here and here. The views expressed herein are his alone and do not represent those of the United States Government or any part thereof.           

People have often asked me over the past few months what I thought the United States was going to do to mark the centenary of American entry into World War I. I used to reply only half-jokingly that I figured that we would do what we did 100 years ago: we would wake up, realize there is a crisis, throw a lot of effort into it, declare victory, and then forget it ever happened.

But now that we are getting closer and closer to the event, I realize I was wrong. Nothing of the kind has happened. There have been a few conferences, terrific museum exhibits, and some efforts at the local level, but very little at the national level. The World War I Centennial Commission even failed to get any federal funding for its modest goal of building a small memorial on the long forgotten Pershing Park near the White House. I have done a few media interviews over the last few years, but the unpleasant truth is that more European media outlets have contacted me than American ones.

Why? It is certainly true that we have been more than a bit distracted here by the recent election and change of presidential administrations, but that strikes me as an insufficient explanation. There are always crises at home to discuss. If the war had been sufficiently important to Americans, they would have discussed it no matter the domestic context, and maybe even made its memory a political topic, as has happened in England and Ireland.

World War I does raise some uncomfortable questions for modern America. It is the moment when the United States directly entered the bloody game of European power politics and then tried to rewrite the rules of that game at great cost. The debates about the wisdom of that approach still echo today, most notably in the current debate about the value of international institutions to American national security.

Some people argue that the United States has a particular national amnesia about World War I. In the 1920s, Americans made an intensive effort to remember the war. Every American city and town has a major monument to World War I. They include prominent places citizens often use like Soldier Field in Chicago, the Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, and the Boulevard of the Allies in Pittsburgh. These living memorials were designed to force people to consider the war every time they went to a football game, an opera, or simply drove home.

America also has thousands of more traditional memorials to the war. New York City alone has more than 120. Art historian Mark Levitch is attempting to document them all, and I send him a photo when I come across one. They are everywhere, from plaques in New York City skyscrapers memorializing employees of a major bank to a small marker in a local college chapel to the list of the dead on a metal sign on the town square where I live.

Still, since the Great Depression, the United States has largely turned its attention away from the war. This problem of amnesia is easiest to see in Washington. The nation’s capital features an enormous, quite over-the-top memorial to World War II in a prominent place on the National Mall. It draws throngs of visitors and has become one of the most visited sites in a city full of first-class museums and memorials. It stands, of course, in stark contrast to the somber, dark symbolism of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial just a short walk away, as I imagine it was always supposed to.

But it also stands in stark contrast to the World War I memorial on the National Mall, a small marble dome dedicated to the veterans from Washington, DC. For years, it was the victim of a bureaucratic squabble. The National Parks Service, on whose land the memorial sits, refused to care for a memorial dedicated to the city, and the city claimed that it had no resources to clean and maintain it. They finally reached a deal but only after volunteers raised private money to clean it, in part so that it would not mar the view of the new Martin Luther King Memorial close by.

Americans, it would seem, have forgotten this war. Clearly, they do not hold it in their minds the way they do the Civil War that proceeded it or World War II that followed it. In part, I suspect that the frustrations Americans had with this war began quite early. Americans went to war to remove the German threat to their homeland, a threat that had been building and finally burst with the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and the release of the Zimmerman Telegram.

When the Germans laid down their arms on November 11, 1918, most Americans thought the job was done. They therefore demanded the immediate return of their loved ones from France. But their president had a much more expansive vision of reshaping the world in America’s image. To him, the military phase of the war was only one part. That vision proved to be too much for most of his countrymen. The United States Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles and with it Woodrow Wilson’s beloved League of Nations.

Thus, even though Americans remembered the men who fought, they rejected the war’s purpose, or at least the purpose as their president presented it. American war memorials are frequently a simple doughboy statue, symbolically recognizing those who sacrificed without saying anything about the cause itself. Also for this reason, we commemorate the war (as Europeans also do) on the day of the armistice, not the day of the peace treaty.

It is also true, however, that we Americans are not particularly good at anniversaries. My colleagues who study the Civil War were disappointed with the lack of introspection and serious discussion during the sesquicentennial of that major event. The 50th anniversary of many important Vietnam War events has also failed to generate much serious discussion, although the New York Times has run an excellent series on the subject. Notably, it has not run a similar series on World War I.

The problem may be amnesia on this side of the Atlantic, but my European friends have not been entirely satisfied with anniversary coverage on their side, either. Gary Sheffield found himself in a debate with the BBC over what he charged was overly simplistic treatment of a complex subject. Sir Richard Evans also sparred with Education Minister Michael Gove over the political ramifications of historical memory. These debates confirm my own view that for most people history is as much about confirming their own ideological beliefs as it is about a serious engagement with the past in all its complexity.

I fear that this anniversary will come and go in the United States without opening a space for us to debate issues of substance. We might have used the centenary to talk about America’s role in the war and how it changed in 1917; why the nation fights wars and how it seeks to end them; or how Americans have used their power to pursue both national interests and international ambitions. But I fear we will miss this opportunity. I had hoped for debates like the ones Gary Sheffield and others have had in Europe, but we will not get them. My hopes for a declaration of victory were premature.

Image: J. M. Flagg‘s 1917 poster based on the original British Lord Kitchener poster of three years earlier, via Wikimedia commons


Trump and the future of NATO

Professor Andrew Dorman

Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States has been shrouded in controversy. His apparent close links with Russia and questioning about the ongoing relevance of NATO has caused concern on both sides of the Atlantic. Trump’s questioning of the European dependence on the US for its security and the imbalance in relative spending and military capability between the United States and the European members is not new for an incoming or even serving US President. Nor is a questioning of NATO’s future, John Mearsheimer’s classic ‘Back to the Future’ piece in the journal International Security are evidence of this. What is new is his questioning of Article V of the Washington Treaty which provides the collective security guarantee for all NATO members. Without it the value of NATO membership is unclear.

Adding to the complication of Trump’s challenge is the timing of this. Questioning the relevance and future of NATO at a time where Russia, and in the past its predecessor the Soviet Union, is openly becoming increasingly assertive in what it perceives to be its area of influence. The central question confronting the NATO alliance is whether to acquiesce to Russia’s tacit demands that NATO respects its dominance of the post-Soviet space and let’s Russia illegally annex the Ukraine, attack Georgia and so forth, or alternatively continues to allow democratic states that wish to continue to join the alliance and benefit from the collective security guarantee.

In response to Trump’s latest comments on NATO, German Chancellor Merkel has stated that the Europeans may have to provide for their own security without the United States. Fine words but the reality of this for Europe is at best questionable, especially given the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union and the possibility of the election of Marine Le Pen as French President followed by a French vote to leave the European Union. Countering the increasing threat posed by Russia looks increasingly precarious for those in NATO, for those in the former Soviet space that have not yet managed to join the NATO, the situation is far more disconcerting.

Fifty years on from the adoption of the Harmel report by NATO, which led to a focus on both dialogue in the form of détente and deterrence with Russia, there is increasing unease in the hallways of the NATO governments. Normally one would expect the incoming US president and those around him to emphasise reassurance and continuity to its partners. However, such conventions do not appear to apply to Donald Trump and whilst those he has nominated to key cabinet positions, such as Marine General Mattis as the new Defense Secretary, are emphasising the ongoing importance of NATO for the US, Trump himself continues to send a contradictory message which Russia would no doubt approve. At best the road ahead for NATO will be rocky, at worst we may be seeing the destruction of the most significant military alliance in history.

Image: NATO Headquarters meeting. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Trump’s Improvised Foreign Policy

Dr. Andreas Krieg

On 20 January Donald J. Trump will be inaugurated to become the 45th President of a country trying to find its role in a globalized world. The United States remain the strongest economy and possess the most capable military force in the world. Yet, in the apolar world of the 21st century where non-state actors use disruptive technology and ideologies to effectively undermine state authority, and where global economic push and pull factors cause individuals and communities to migrate across borders and continents, the US regardless of their size or power have less and less means to singlehandedly influence or shape economic and socio-political affairs.

In this rapidly changing world where notions of state-centrism, nationalism and territoriality appear archaic, Trump looks like a relic of the past. His promises to make America great again appealed to the losers of globalization, those unable to adapt to the new realities of open markets and transnational communities. Responding to these fears and concerns is within Trump’s comfort zone: looking inwards and focusing on the economy. Thereby, the high politics of foreign and security policy have been widely ignored. And it is here where Trump remains an unpredictable enigma for analysts, diplomats and journalists.

Yes, Trump will not govern alone. Yes, Trump will have to delegate key portfolios to his cabinet. And yes, much of his racist, ignorant and naïve comments, as inexcusable as they might have been, were campaign rhetoric. Nonetheless, the foreign and security policy of the allegedly last remaining superpower in the world will be determined by the comments, actions and decisions of a man who up until 2015 could not have been further removed from geo-politics. Some say this might be his strength. However, looking at the fragility and unpredictability of the global security context today, someone as imprudent, undiplomatic, impulsive and ignorant as Trump could become a liability not just for the United States but the West at large.

Trump’s first press conference on 11 January revealed that he was still the same man he was on the campaign trail: impulsive, irrational and incoherent – a man without a clear strategy or vision for America’s place in the world. He lacks a defined worldview as he has so far just looked at the world through the eyes of a business man whose views of the world have not been shaped by geo-political developments but by his ability to generate individual business profit. His national security objectives remain defined by naivety and simplicity. With an oversimplifying stroke of black and white, China, Iran and ISIS are presented as threats, Russia as a potential partner, while NATO and the EU are being mocked for their ineffectiveness, red-tape and free-rider problem. These emotionally-formulated foreign policy maxims remain underdeveloped and provide no basis for a Trumpian national security strategy.

So what to expect? While Europe is concerned with his rhetoric of putting America first, partners in the Middle East see Trump as an ignorant pragmatist who can be easily impressed and won over by commercial opportunities, i.e. Riyalpolitik. His posture as a strongman might frighten liberals in Europe but appeal to Arabs who are hoping that after years of Obama’s dovish approach to foreign policy, Trump’s hawkish stance on Iran could work in their favour. Similar hopes can be heard within conservative circles in Israel who expect Trump’s support to be much more unconditional than his predecessor’s.

Trump will put America first, thereby putting an end to the implicitness of America’s role as the world’s police man. Here, Trump will not divert from the legacy of Obama but instead continue to limit America’s commitments overseas. In so doing, he will be pragmatist rather than ideological. His policies will not be guided by strategically defined objectives but by ad hoc responses to ongoing events. The world should not expect foresightedness in US foreign and security policy in the coming four years as Trump will have to learn along the way how to formulate strategy and how third-order effects of any action or comment could potentially have catastrophic consequences in the international arena.

At a time when US leadership might be most needed America’s new commander-in-chief lacks the qualities, expertise and experience to carve out a role for the United States in the 21st century. Trump’s presidency will be truly improvised.

Image: Presidential candidate Donald Trump, watch party, Feb 2 in West Des Moines. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

China’s space weapons test ten years on: Behemoth pulls the peasants’ plough


This post is based aspects of a forthcoming paper presented at the ISA Annual Convention 2017 in Baltimore, MD.

Ten years ago, on 11th January 2007, a road-mobile SC-19 Chinese antisatellite (ASAT) weapons test renewed interest, debate, and occasional polemic hysteria, in the role of space weapons in international security and Sino-US relations. The test destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite, and in the process created thousands of pieces of debris which threatened other satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO), the bulk of which will take another 30 years to de-orbit. It also caused some chaotic, heated, and embarrassing diplomatic fallout: three months later, China was due to host the 25th annual meeting of the international Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. .

This instance was part of a wider programme of Chinese space weapons development and testing – which has included a series of ‘cleaner’ kinetic-kill tests at allegedly higher altitudes (almost reaching geosynchronous orbit ), laser dazzling, and radiofrequency jamming – and which is the fruit of the larger program of military modernization in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its supporting defence industrial base that stretches back to Plan 863 from 1986. This space weapons programme itself is part of a larger drive to modernise the PLA to enable it not only resist and inflict punishment and pain on a spacepower-enabled adversary (such as the United States), but also to develop its own space infrastructure in support of terrestrial military capabilities.

These two pillars of Chinese military spacepower have altered the balance of forces significantly 20 years after the Taiwan Crisis of 1996. As well as flooding the Taiwan Strait with over 1,200 short range ballistic missiles in support of an amphibious assault, China is on its way to holding US Navy carriers, naval bases, and air strips across the western Pacific hostage with precise long-range weapons systems. These long-range weapons systems depend upon Chinese space services to provide targeting data and to cue terrestrial air, land, and sea reconnaissance and targeting systems. This dependence on space systems will only increase if aerial and naval drones are increasingly deployed

The 1991 Gulf War demonstrated the potential of spacepower in terrestrial warfare. Spacepower supported mechanised forces are, generally speaking, faster, more mobile, flexible, precise, and efficient than those without, as the ‘Highway of Death’ and Schwarzkopf’s ‘left hook’ in the Iraqi desert proved. China, like many other powers, is developing or refining armed forces that can effectively target what they can see as rapidly as possible – and space technologies are central to this endeavour.

Since 2007, Chinese space infrastructure has grown tremendously. China has been launching rockets with orbital payloads at almost twice the usual rate of the preceding years, at around 15-20 Long March launches a year. China has over 180 satellites registered to it, whilst Russia registers just over 140. The United States meanwhile, registers approximately 580 satellites, both military and non-military. Russia’s involvement in Syria demonstrates some of its progress in long-range command and control, as well as in precision munitions with cruise missiles and guided bombs. China has been consistently investing for longer in space technology for ‘force enhancement,’ and has a far larger chequebook and space industrial base to rely on than Russia. The space security community is still waiting for the watershed moment in Chinese space support for its military. Recently, a reorganisation of the PLA created the PLA Strategic Support Force, which combines PLA ‘space troops,’ ‘cyber troops,’ and ‘electronic warfare forces’ as one independent service. Whilst it is too soon to draw any firm observations from this, it is clear that China is thinking strategically about the role of its space systems as the connecting mesh between its terrestrial forces, and how it should be protected and exploited.

The dual-use nature of satellite services means that space infrastructure can be used for military and non-military purposes rather easily. China’s maturing position as a major spacepower is thus not solely a military story. Its development of a navigation system – Beidou/Compass – to rival GPS is as much an economic infrastructure as it is a military asset. Similarly, Chinese Earth observation and continental communications satellites are about economic development as well as military modernisation. China’s international space diplomacy continues apace, and is making inroads in developing satellites, services, as well as control and tracking stations in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Chinese space systems now take centre place in civic planning, infrastructure development, and the building of a high-data urbanised economy.

The economic take off from the late 1980s gives Chinese spacepower huge potential, and this is being delivered upon through efficiencies in resource use, communications networks that span a continental state, and the consumer markets that emerge from that infrastructure. Spacepower is essential for China’s ongoing ecological crisis and for managing the worst effects of climate change and urbanisation. Should President-elect Trump fatally wound the United States’ leading position in Earth science and climate change monitoring, China is on track become the single-largest 21st century spacepower contributing to climate politics and developing a less carbon-intensive advanced economy.

Chinese spacepower development has been so rapid in the 20 years since the Taiwan crisis, and the ten years since its controversial space weapons test, China has not only developed an ability to threaten aspects of US spacepower and military capability but also begun to mirror the United States in its multifaceted dependence on spacepower for conventional military power and economic well-being. True, in a Taiwan war China will be less dependent on space systems than the United States. However, Chinese long-range weapons systems needed cueing and targeting information from space to strike American and Japanese ships and bases at a distance. However, for missions other than Taiwan, the PLA would find greater use for space communications, especially as its Navy begins operations further afield. And it is these expeditionary operations or regional wars with non-nuclear states that are far more likely to occur for the PLA than a ‘tweet’ that launched a thousand missiles.

In the context of a maturing Chinese military space power, American worries of a ‘Space Pearl Harbor’ are making a comeback. A crippling Chinese attack on US space infrastructure would no doubt hamper US abilities to conduct a war in the Pacific. Yet, the details required to plan such a scenario cast doubt on its practicality. Some satellite constellations can suffer significant losses before services even begin to degrade – such as the Global Positioning System. Those who worry of a pre-emptive space attack are right to worry, but the effects of such attacks will depend upon whether an adversary can disrupt or destroy enough of the right satellites and communications networks. That caveat and lack of information is sometimes missing in public debate. Specific satellites provide specific services, and the timing of such attacks must be coordinated with terrestrial operations for space warfare to have any meaningful effect. Furthermore, the United States continues to explore methods to not only adapt to space warfare, but also is developing latent space weapons technology of its own, with a dual-use capability in the Aegis-equipped ‘missile defence’ destroyers and in on-orbit manoeuvring technology in the X-37B and the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program. Simplistic notions of surprise attacks at the outset of hostilities in space clash with the ability of many space systems to actually be resilient in warfare. Space weapons do not herald the era of certain doom for, or easy solutions against, high-technology militaries.

China and America are two leading space powers that are integrating spacepower into their military, political, and economic power. It is no surprise, then, that both are hedging against the possibility of space warfare – although rhetoric and proposals on space arms control seem to ignore this reality. Indeed, even European and Japanese space infrastructure has increasingly military potential through dual-use services. The growing Chinese orbital behemoth, like America’s celestial leviathan, is a fount of economic and technological momentum, as well as a source of simultaneous vulnerability and resilience depending on the space systems relied upon and threated. Although China has continued its space weapons development on a steady course in the past ten years, it has been hard at work launching many more targets of its own into outer space.

Image: a US SM-3 missile launch to destroy the NRO-L 21 satellite, via wikimedia commons.

Watching the Start of a New American Era from the Edge of the World


On November 8 – the second Tuesday of November – I found myself in Anchorage, Alaska watching the poll counts climb state by state while the minutes passed. As polls closed and states on TV monitors lit up as either blue or red, ebullient celebration or quiet resignation crossed the faces of those around me at the public house. Having been at Shrivenham during the Brexit vote before embarking on a previously planned trip to Edinburgh the following Friday morning, I saw echoes of the same disbelief (both excited and disappointed in nature) that I had experienced during that train trip north as I caught flights home across the 4,900 miles separating me from my home after the presidential election.

I was asked if I’d be interested in writing this piece almost two weeks ago, and since I felt that I was still forming an opinion on how the election had played out, I hesitated to do so. However, just over two weeks later with the news settling in and finding myself back on the U.S.’s east coast for the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve had some time to reflect on events that have transpired since the electoral college awarded the win to a president-elect who, as of earlier this week, had lost the popular nearly 2 million votes, but succeeded with 290 electoral votes to Secretary Hillary Clinton’s 232.

Throughout his campaign, President-elect Trump challenged the world order’s commitment to international trade, alliances, and collective defense, as well as core tenants of the American experience such as inclusion and diversity. While future policy decisions (and political appointments) will indicate how the incoming administration intends to address these issues, there are more pressing issues that the American electorate must focus on surrounding public discourse and behavior.

For instance, a friend of mine who works with immigrant youth in the Washington, DC area helped to translate a parent-teacher conference two days after the election. The second question asked about their son by the parents was, “Is he kind to all of his classmates?” – a question that, surely, they must hope all of their son’s classmates’ parents are asking as well. His schoolmate, an 8th grade white boy, was crying in the hallway the same week because he has two moms, and has witnessed the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric espoused by some of Trump’s supporters. Children’s behavior is often cued by their parents’, which might give us a bit of insight fears harbored by parents in a highly diverse, inner city school located in the nation’s capital.

One of the things that moved me most to write this piece, though, was seeing the gathering of Neo-Nazis – apparently rebranded as the “alt-right” – giving Nazi salutes in the Ronald Reagan Building of Washington, DC. Having heard that the gathering took place at the Reagan Building complex was quite surprising, given that it is situated neatly between the White House and the Capitol, is home to USAID (the USG Department of State’s Agency for International Development) and the Environmental Protection Agency, houses Customs and Border Patrol screening facilities, and plays hosts to diverse conferences whose topicality (and attendees) would be directly threatened by the views of those giving Nazi salutes to President-elect Trump. (Perhaps the only place that these activities would have had a more alarming host would have been across the street, where Trump properties recently reopened the Old Post Office Building – a longstanding DC landmark). While freedom of expression is an important basis of the American experience, that doesn’t mean that blatant xenophobic and anti-Semitic movements should not be called out for the acts of hate that they are.

Although a vote for Trump doesn’t necessarily mean that the voter is a racist, xenophobic, misogynist, or bigot, it is difficult to think that not holding any of these as a deal-breaker when voting for a President does admit a certain level of acceptance of these values. Diversity and pluralism are what make America strong, and they must have a place within the new administration if that administration is to truly represent Americans. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of each American to make their neighbors and their communities feel inclusive. As one email I recently received commented, “If a swastika is drawn on a sidewalk, there is a big difference between community members cleaning it up in two hours and the city cleaning it up in two days.”

The months ahead will show if Americans intend to use this outcome as an opportunity to draw together and support one another while demanding a government that represents our values, or if we will succumb to the vitriolic rhetoric that colored much of Trump’s campaign to divide the electorate into “us” and “them”. Misogyny, white nationalism, isolationism, and intolerance are not the values that America wants to show the world.

Image: Donald Trump on the campaign trail, via flickr.


The Better Angels of America’s Nature: Hate, Hope and the 2016 US presidential election


Like many people, I began this year dismissing the possibility that we could end the year with the UK having left the European Union and Donald Trump in the White House. I, like many others, have been blind to the very real fears and anxieties that saw a political earthquake shake the British political and intellectual establishment in June, and which may yet unleash another one on the other side of the Atlantic tomorrow. For those of us for whom the unthinkable – Donald Trump in the White House – has become frighteningly possible, we are faced with trying to understand how so many people not only support his candidacy, but in the process are so venomously hostile to his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The US stands on the verge of electing its first female president yet instead of celebrating the possibility of shattering the greatest glass ceiling of all, the narrative that has dominated Clinton’s path to the White House is of a power-hungry, corrupt woman ruthless in her ambition to occupy the Oval Office. This has been a campaign of hate, violence, smears, lies, and levels of xenophobia and misogyny unseen in the modern era. The prospects for America have never looked bleaker; that is not hyperbole – in the 20 years I have been studying the US never has the country stood so divided over what America stands for, what America is.

So how did it get to this? Trump, it has been argued, represents the latest incarnation of American populism, a political movement that emerged in the late 19th century but whose legacy lives on, through the fears and anxieties of predominantly white working-class Americans who increasingly reject a political establishment that no longer speaks to their needs and concerns. The issues and ideals that inspired the populist movement of the 19th and early 20th century were often genuinely progressive, hailing the cause of the ‘common man’ and seeking to defend the interests of the hard-working farmers and labourers from the greed and corruption of government, industry and big business in America’s ‘Gilded Age.’ But it has always been a more complex political movement, tainted by the shadow of racism and xenophobia, and its advocates – from Theodore Roosevelt to William Jennings Bryan and even Franklin Roosevelt – have themselves often fallen prey to the corruption and scandal they sought to oppose.

One of the most iconic embodiments of progressive populism was not a real-life inhabitant of the White House, but a fictional representation: Jefferson Smith, in Frank Capra’s famous, glorious movie Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). James Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, leader of the Montana Boy Rangers, who unexpectedly finds himself appointed a US Senator and winds up in Washington. There, his youthful idealism encounters the realities of a corrupt US political system that seeks to destroy his plan for a bill that would create a national boys camp. Demoralised, but not defeated, Mr Smith fights on; in the film’s climax, Smith takes to the floor of the US Senate and in one of the most famous filibusters in American history, gives an impassioned defence of liberty and democracy. Jefferson Smith was perhaps director Frank Capra’s most iconic populist hero. Capra was writing at a time of enormous unease and uncertainty, amidst the tumult and turmoil of the Great Depression at home and mounting fears over war in Europe. By his own admission, Capra wanted to make films that gave hope to the American people in an era dominated by fear, hatred and anxiety over the future, to capture the hopes and fears of the ‘hard-pressed Smiths and Joneses.’

Trump is no Jefferson Smith, but does he give voice to the ‘hard-pressed Smiths and Joneses’ for whom the political establishment has become the embodiment of all that is wrong in 21st-century America? Trump certainly appeals to many for whom the government and political classes are seen as the problem, not the solution. He is not afraid to stand up, to ‘think and to speak’ many of the fears and worries that are at the roots of populism’s rage. Trump professes to embody the fears and beliefs that dare not be spoken, to voice what thousands of people in America’s heartlands – that great swathe of rural America beyond the Beltway – think and feel but which have for too long, in their view, been dismissed as politically incorrect by the liberal intelligentsia. Although they appeal to difference audiences, explicitly distancing themselves from the philosopher-king intellectualism of Barack Obama – which has proved such a turn-off for many Americans – has been an important source of legitimacy both for Trump, and left-wing populists like Bernie Sanders.

But Trump’s populism is of the most dangerous kind, far removed from the moral idealism of Jefferson Smith. Trump’s appropriates the language of freedom and democracy to mask an authoritarianism that seeks to take America back to a simpler, ‘purer’ (read: whiter) past, one untainted by multiculturalism, equality and pluralism. His candidacy is not the first to do this. As Michael Kazin notes in his article on Trump and Populism for Foreign Affairs, as populism evolved in the 20th century it became increasingly intertwined with racism and xenophobic nationalism; even in the 1880s, parts of the movement sought to ban imported Chinese and Japanese labourers resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Although the Populist Party led by William Jennings Bryan collapsed and never saw the inside of the White House, populism as a political force lived on. By the 1920s, the Klu Klux Klan had become the most visible and extreme manifestation of the socio-cultural populism that increasingly demonised the ‘other’ – from Japanese-Americans interned during WWII, to African-Americans denied the rights fought for during the Civil War, to annual quotas on immigrants. It found its voice in the campaigns of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater in the 1960s who fought for states’ rights and to overturn the hard-won gains of the Civil Rights movement, and in Pat Buchanan in the 1990s with his isolationist platform for the presidency that sought to build a ‘sea wall’ to stop immigrants from ‘sweeping over our southern borders.’ Sound familiar?

If Bernie Sanders represents a more traditional, economic populism, then Trump is the manifestation of its worst, and most dangerous excesses. Yet never has this strain of American populism come so perilously close to the White House. Lyndon Johnson succeeded in defeating Republican challenger Barry Goldwater largely by branding him as a dangerous extremist; Hillary Clinton’s attempts to do the same appear to be floundering. Why? Clinton, for all her qualities as a champion of women and children’s rights, is the archetypal Washington insider, the very embodiment of a political establishment and personal dynasty that is feared and loathed by so many. Trump has undoubtedly used lies and manipulation to smear and tarnish Hillary, but allegations of corruption have followed the Clintons from Arkansas to Washington. The email scandal that has tainted her campaign was, for many, just the latest scandal in a sordid Clinton-family saga of power and corruption. Many, myself included, will celebrate her victory if she does indeed become America’s first female candidate but, like Barack Obama, her triumph may expose more wounds than it heals.

As a recent study showed, feminism and women’s equality is a seen as a threat to many white, working-class males, living in a post-industrial economy which poses challenges to traditional gender roles and Trump has tapped into this angst with frightening ease. While many Republicans have come out to vociferously oppose the sexism and misogyny at the heart of Trump’s campaign, hostility towards women is, sadly, one of the strongest predictors of support for Trump. A defeat for Trump may send him packing from Washington, but the sentiments he has manipulated and exploited will remain long after he has gone. A Clinton presidency – through policies designed to help close the gender pay gap, provide for affordable childcare and paid leave, and increase the minimum wage – may go some way towards the ‘unfinished business’ of greater equality and opportunities for women Clinton’s former advisor Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote about. But as Slaughter herself recognised, many of the problems facing women in America today are ones shared by their male counterparts who have parental and caring responsibilities and who face many of the same challenges in navigating the personal and the professional in the 21st-century. This helps explain, in part, why Hillary has strong support amongst college-educated white males; non-educated white males, however, have shown overwhelming support for Trump. She may not need their votes to gain the White House, or to stay there, but neither can she dismiss the needs and fears of the ‘angry white men’ who feel left behind by the advances in feminism, multiculturalism and civil rights of the last few decades.

Where then, will America be left on November 9th? Polling suggests that Clinton will likely prevail in the electoral college (this is a process whereby each state has a certain number of electors appointed, reflecting the number of members in that state’s congressional delegation – both House and Senate – so the larger and more populous a state, the more votes are up for grabs. Each state bar Maine and Nebraska adopts a winner-take-all approach, and to win the presidency you must win 270 electoral college votes). But, as Brexit reminded us, polls can be fickle things and there are a number of key ‘swing states’ crucial for any president to win the electoral college – Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia – that remain up for grabs. Early voting is showing strong support for Clinton yet her overall poll-lead over Trump has declined from 14-points prior to the FBI’s recent decision to re-open the investigation into Hillary’s emails, to a mere two points in the last few days.

Whatever happens, America’s wounds will not heal easily. It may seem naive to hope that a modern-day Jefferson Smith can rise from the ashes of this campaign and fight for the ‘Smiths and the Joneses’ without recourse to the demagoguery, racism, sexism and violence that Trump embodies. The problem for America is that, as many have pointed out, this is where America is in 2016. It is a nation where demagoguery, lies, hatred, racism, sexism, xenophobia and even violence have found a home and a voice. And Americans are having to live this election and all that is represents; as one social media user commented: ‘To the bystanders who think this election is a train wreck. We. Are. On. The. Train.’ But this is also an election that is bearing witness to the extraordinary belief that America is better than this, that America remains a country where pluralism, diversity, inclusivity, tolerance and hope can and do thrive; to cite one of Barack Obama’s favourite quotes from Martin Luther King, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.’

Fearing the fall-out from making a film so critical of the US political system at a time when the nation’s political leaders were facing momentous challenges, Frank Capra questioned whether he ought to even make Mr Smith Goes to Washington, but concluded that ‘the more uncertain are the people of the world…the more they need a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals…It is never untimely to yank the rope of freedom’s bell.’ If ever there was a time to reclaim all that is great and good about America and its democratic ideals, that time is now. As America stands poised on the brink of one of its most vitriolic and consequential elections in modern history, we should be reminded of one of America’s most beloved and revered presidents, Abraham Lincoln who, in his first inaugural address, spoke to a nation divided: ‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’

Image: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during United States presidential election 2016 via wikimedia commons.


The Impact of the Battle of Jutland on Economic Warfare

This is the third in a series of posts connected to a King’s College First World War Research Group and Corbett Centre Event to mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. 


Prof. Kennedy’s latest book, ‘Britain’s War at Sea, 1914-1918: The War They Thought and the War They Fought’ is now available. You can read more about it here.

Often the link between the outcome of campaigns or battles and the resulting changes to public or private perceptions; the changed nature of accessibility to critical air, sea or land domains; the subsequent inability to use military power in the same way thereafter; or, the ongoing ability to influence domestic and foreign opinion in a manner consistent with that practices prior to the combat, has gone unnoticed. Military historians have focused on the fighting; diplomatic historians on diplomatic activity; economic historians on economic factors. Rarely is any attempt made to analyse the strategic context existing at the time of battle, or to follow the ripples of tactical and operational success, or failure, through to their logical resting place amongst the strategic assessment process. Using the May 31st, 1916 Battle of Jutland, famous and infamous for its tactical indecision, questionable operational objectives, but strategic impact and enablement, we will A. show the complexity of the relationship between battle, diplomacy and strategic decision making, as well as B. reinforce the centrality of the oceanic domain to the overall war efforts of both the Allies and the Central Powers, one seeking to use it to create overwhelming power and the latter attempting to deny the Allies access to it for that purpose.

In January 1916 Anglo-American strategic relations were becoming more strained due to the increasing restrictions on American maritime commercial activity being imposed due to Britain’s blockade policy. Tighter and more extensive contraband lists, as well as an increasing number of American vessels being seized and detained for Prize Court proceedings in United Kingdom harbours, was whipping up a higher degree of anti-Britishness in the United States than had been seen since the beginning of the war. German propaganda and nominal gestures of conceding for American demands regarding attacks on merchant shipping and the contemplation of possible peace negotiations had moved the initiative as far as wooing American public opinion towards Germany for the moment. Forthcoming British replies to the American State Department rejection peace proposals and demands for a lessening of the blockade’s effectiveness would only exacerbate that condition. One of the very real dangers of a rift in Anglo-American relations was the fact that America could limit its sale of munitions to Great Britain in order to get the terms governing blockade policy changed in their favour. Such an embargo would have a crippling effect on the Allied war effort until alternative sources of munitioning could be established in Canada, Australia India, or Latin America. Sir Cecil Spring Rice, the British Ambassador to the United States hinted and insinuated to the American State Department throughout late January 1916 that they should prepared themselves for little movement by the British with regard to weakening blockade policy. While relations between the two nations did not fracture, or indeed impair the ability of the Allies to wage war, Germany retained a more favoured position within the American Congress and large swathes of the public in the spring of 1916. That governmental and public perception of Germany would change rapidly as the autumn of 1916 came to pass, and that change was a direct result of the Battle of Jutland. While Germany was held in good odour in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the great sea battle, the question of Germany’s desire and willingness to use unrestricted submarine warfare was an issue of concern to America. 

In early October 1916 the American Chargé at the Embassy in Berlin, Joseph Grew (future American Ambassador to Japan in the 1930s and at the time of the outbreak of the war in the Pacific) reported that Germany’s return to indiscriminate submarine warfare was a distinct possibility. The Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg, who was opposed to unrestricted submarine warfare, along with the Kaiser, and key senior Army officers such as Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg, continued to be able to dissuade the Reichstag from approving the unleashing of the submarine weapon, but it was thought that such a state of affairs would not last for long. The German Navy was seen to be readying itself physically for a renewed submarine offensive, with more material and resources being targeted at the construction of a greater number of such vessels. With Admiral Tripitz and other members of the naval staff agitating openly and covertly for a resumption of submarine operations it was thought not possible for many party members and leaders within the Reichstag to remain opposed to the renewal. By mid-October the conviction that submarine warfare ought to be carried out indiscriminately was gaining ground among the leading men of all parties and the great mass of the German people.

On October 13th German naval officers, heading by the commander of the High Seas Fleet, Admiral Scheer, presented the Emperor with a petition demanding the immediate resumption of submarine warfare without consideration for neutral rights as being the only way to win the war. The petition referred directly to the outcome of the Battle of Jutland for Germany’s strategic condition:

High sea battle may damage the enemy but would not force England to make peace as fleet could not overcome disadvantages of Germany’s military geographic situation and great [naval] preponderance of the enemy. Victory can be attained only by overcoming English economic life which means beginning of a submarine war against British commerce. To choose any weaker method would be in vain and I most urgently dissuade Your Majesty, as I did before, from the choice of this dubious form, not only because it does not correspond with the character of submarine weapons, but the endangering of the boats would not compensate for the profit to be obtained thereby. It would also be impossible in spite of the great conscientiousness of the commanders to avoid in England’ waters where American interests are lively such accidents as would humiliate us and which would force us to give in if we cannot hold through to the fullest extent.

More and more the realization of the Battle of Jutland signalling the end of any consideration of the use of the sea to progress German war aims in a conventional fashion was percolating throughout the German policy making system.

By November the “von Tripitz” policy, as the submarine solution was described by Grew, was frustrated still by the reluctance of the political apparatus to approve the use of full unrestricted warfare. The fear of embroiling the United States fully and openly on the side of the Allies was a major part of the opposition’s argument. And, while parts of the German Navy recognized this potential danger in escalating the situation thru such submarine actions, they believed the risk worth the investment, and that America would not engage in the war if enough effort was spent in either compensation or propaganda to put the blame for Germany’s need to take such measure squarely at Britain and her blockade’s feet. With the blockade beginning to be felt to a greater extent and through a wider range of parts of the economy, pressure to counter such effects were growing greater and greater in Germany. Denied access to the sea by the finality of the Jutland engagement, but requiring some means of exerting pressure onto the strategic lifelines that were the British Sea Lanes of Communication which ran throughout the world, Germany was left with no choice.

The Battle of Skagerrak forced the German strategic policy makers to have to return to the one thing that was assured to rekindle harsh German-American relations, and, by default, create closer Anglo-American strategic relations. To arrive at that decision took time, time that saw a strategic paralysis and dissonance within the German strategic planning elite. That disconnection and friction allowed the Allied blockade valuable time to tighten the economic blockade both at sea and in various markets, such as strategic metals. As well, the naval victory and resultant German debate over the return to submarine warfare was observed by the Americans. That German debate and resultant action worked to further influence the American strategic policy making elite into believing that Germany’s eventual ability to win the war could only revolve around actions detrimental to American strategic interests. Overall, therefore, the Battle of Jutland’s strategic ripples resulted in a great commonality and accommodation of strategic relations between Great Britain and the United States in areas related to the vital ground occupied by economic warfare.

Image: A steamer sinking after being torpedoed by a German U-boat, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Power and Plenty in US-China Strategic Competition


NB: This is a short summary of Trading with the Enemy: the Making of US Export Control Policy toward the People’s Republic of China, Oxford University Press (February 2016, available here).

In the twenty-first century, the US-China relationship is characterized by a mixture of economic interdependence and rivalry in the military realm. On the one hand, since the establishment of their diplomatic relations in 1979, the economies of the United States and of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have grown increasingly intertwined. On the other hand, coupled with the thickening of their economic relations, there have been growing concerns within the US government over China’s military modernization in the post–Cold War era. The combination of China’s defense budget increase, foreign technology imports, domestic research and development (R&D), and military-industrial espionage have fueled a major military modernization effort. As a consequence, successive US administrations have carefully scrutinized and responded to the evolution of the strategy and military capabilities of their “most likely future politico-military near peer competitor.” The United States and China have therefore become, as David Shambaugh put it in 2013, “tangled titans” in a “cooperative-competitive dynamic.”

The complexity of managing the conflicting security and economic dynamics in the US-China relationship was eloquently expressed by former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Winston Lord in 1994 when he asked “how do we reconcile our competing goals in a post–Cold War agenda when security concerns no longer lend us a clear hierarchy?” Arguably, this mixture of multiple and contradictory interests is one of the fundamental features of the post–Cold War international environment. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were economically independent of each other. As a consequence, economic statecraft was integrated with and subordinated to US security objectives. In the post–Cold War era, the absence of an overarching strategic threat, coupled with growing economic interdependencies, has created an international system in which the two objectives of economic welfare and the protection of national security can increasingly represent trade-offs. As Richard Rosecrance argues in 1997, “the essential problem for countries seeking to enhance both security and the economy is that success in one may involve a trade-off that entails failure in the other.”

In light of the intertwining logics of military competition and economic interdependence at play in US-China relations, in Trading with the Enemy I examine how the United States has balanced its national security and economic interests in its relationship with the People’s Republic of China. To do so, the book investigates a strategically sensitive yet under-explored facet of US-China relations, namely the making of American export control policy on military-related technology to China since 1979. Export controls stand at the frontier between military considerations (the maintenance of military preeminence by avoiding the transfer of sensitive technologies to potential competitors) and economic interests (job creation, exports, and economic growth). At any time, a balance must be found between the economic interests involved in exporting high technologies and the military implications of potential transfers of sensitive technologies. Trade-offs are therefore intrinsic to export control policy. This field of inquiry therefore allows to investigate how the US government has balanced potentially competing national security and economic interests in its relationship with the People’s Republic of China and whether this balance has evolved over time. As Adam Segal put it in 2004, “the problem of designing effective export control policies for China exemplifies paradigmatic changes in the relationship among technology, trade, and national security since the fall of the Soviet Union.”

The book examines the making of US export controls toward China during the three decades that followed the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979. To do so, it relies upon a broad and unique collection of primary oral and written sources including 199 interviews conducted in the US, the PRC and France , declassified archival documents, and diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks. One of the key findings that emerges from this study is the “hopelessness of containment” in the Post–Cold War Era. The United States is today unable to implement a strategy of military/technological containment vis-à-vis China in the same way it did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War because of the erosion of Washington’s capacity to restrict the transfer of military-related technology to the PRC. Although since the end of World War II the United States has been the major proponent of stringent controls on strategic trade with potential competitors, in the post–Cold War era the capacity of the United States to control the diffusion of military-related technology considerably decreased under the impact of several factors: the weakening of the multilateral institution governing export controls, the commercialization and global diffusion of technology, China’s growing indigenous capabilities, and the domestic pressures to liberalize export controls that resulted from the thickening of Sino-American economic relations.

These dynamics testify to the hopelessness of applying a strategy of military/technological containment of the People’s Republic of China in a globalized economy. The overlapping and intertwining of the logics of military competition and economic interdependence at play in the post–Cold War international system attest to the growing complexity of interstate rivalry in the 21st century. Furthermore, these findings have major consequences for Sino-American relations and, potentially, for the prospects of US dominance in the twenty-first century. In the longer term, a consequence of these trends could be, as stressed by a 1999 report of the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board, the leveling of the international military/technological playing field, which would pose a “direct challenge to the fundamental assumption underlying the modern concept of US global military leadership: that the United States enjoys disproportionately greater access to advanced technology than its potential adversaries.” Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether the security, technological, and economic dynamics examined in this book will erode American primacy in world politics and eventually lead to its decline in the face of a rising China.

Image: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, at the outset of a bilateral meeting on May 17, 2015. Courtesy of State Department Photo/Public Domain.

Reasons to (not) be cheerful in 2016…The US: heading into election year

After a turbulent 2015, members of DSD’s Regional Security Research Centre (@KingsRegSec) look forward to the coming year and examine the issues that they believe will be prominent in 2016, including the US presidential elections, continuing instability across the Middle East and the various coalitions seeking to counter IS, talks between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan, the UK referendum on membership of the EU and continuing concerns about Russian activity in eastern Europe.

Dr Ellen Hallams

2016 might just turn out to be the year of Donald Trump. The US presidential election is still 11 months away but the Republican presidential contender is dominating the race to succeed Barack Obama; the primary season is already an unseemly spectacle doing further damage to the reputation of the US political system and electoral cycle. Trump’s candidacy would be comical if it wasn’t a realistic prospect. Although he has peddled lies, fiction and outright xenophobia, he has tapped into a deep discontent among white working class voters alienated by eight years of an Obama presidency. Neither is he quite the aberration some have suggested. His anti-immigration rhetoric is rooted in the Nativist movement of the mid-19th century, embodied by the ‘Know-Nothing’ party and candidacy of former President Millard Fillmore who in 1856 captured 22% of the popular vote. Trump’s pledge to implement a ‘total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,’ certainly puts him at the extreme end of the nativist spectrum but the mood in Washington – and across the country – is already hardening, fuelled in large part by the Paris terror attacks, as well as the shootings in San Bernadino. The US Congress is already legislating to tighten the US visa waiver programme to prevent any foreign national who has visited Iraq, Iran, Syria or the Sudan in the past five years from entering the US without a visa, with further measures possible. Conventional wisdom would suggest Trump’s campaign will self-implode but none of the other candidates as of yet is emerging as a clear challenger. Trump’s candidacy has also overshadowed Bernie Sanders challenge to what will surely be Hilary Clinton’s last bid to be America’s first female president, but it is hard to see Clinton not emerging victorious from the Democratic primaries. Whoever wins the respective nominations, the election will hinge on domestic issues – the economy, immigration, healthcare, welfare reform – but in the context of events in Syria and the growing threat from IS, there will likely be considerable debate over what many see as a weak and ineffectual foreign policy from Obama that has eroded US influence and prestige on the world stage. Clinton has already lamented Obama’s ‘doctrine’ of ‘strategic patience’ as not worthy of a ‘great nation’ and the campaign will no doubt be filled with hubristic reassertions of America’s ‘greatness.’ Whatever happens, the election will make for compelling drama over the next 11 months.

Image: Donald Trump speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2015, via wikimedia commons.



In July 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed between the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Russia, China plus Germany) and Iran, and hailed as a landmark agreement. The JCPOA is concerned with the alleviation of sanctions levied against Tehran in return for the scaling back of its nuclear programme. Indeed, the JCPOA represents the first significant international agreement involving the Islamic Republic Iran regime (IRI), which has been somewhat politically isolated since its formulation, following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. There have been a myriad of studies and analysts positing in the lead up to and following the signing of the JCPOA, that sanctions are what brought the IRI to the table. A more concentrated perspective has argued that it was the US sanctions placed on Iran for over three decades which resulted in the JCPOA. Either way, the developments leading up to July 2015 tell us at least one thing: unilateral actions to economically isolate a targeted country are becoming increasingly impotent. I argue this case in my article titled The Political Economy of US-Iranian Relations (2005-2014) which focuses on the period leading up to the JCPOA. Indeed, my argument was convincing enough to warrant being asked to include a post-article commentary on how my conclusions fared up to the JCPOA, which came into place after I had written my original study.

In the article, I concentrate on the 2005 to 2014 timeframe and focus on the period which captures Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and US President George H.W. Bush’s simultaneous times in office, Ahmadinejad and current US President Barack Obama’s times as leaders of the two respective countries and during the first twelve months of the Obama and the current Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani’s time in office. These spates of differing US-Iranian presidency stances also included significant changes in policies towards one another, specifically when concerned with the nuclear programme and sanctions being levied not just on a bilateral level, but also in the form of US pressure on other aligned states in the international system to multilaterally slap Iran with sanctions.

My argument is embedded in the literature and theory concerned with economic interdependence and the ability of such a relationship to foster results and agreements in the security sphere. Specifically, this economic interdependence-security relationship is predicated on the idea that economic means are increasingly incorporated into foreign policy tools. However, I posit that this stance fails to take into account that the increasingly globalised nature of the international economic and political systems has a knock on effect of diluting the ability of unilateral actions by a specified state, the US in this example, to have the desired effect without the buy-in from other actors in the international system. Using the case study of Iran, I then detail and argue that it is this multilateral level of support which led to the desired effect, i.e. the political goals of reaching an agreement which is ultimately geared at scaling back Iran’s nuclear programme.

It is also worth noting that the P5+1 also had stumbling blocks and barriers which appeared and were needed to be overcome in order for the JCPOA to come into fruition. Indeed, a number of instances, usually off the back of a P5+1-Iran round of talks, demonstrated that there were disagreements within the P5+1 itself when drawing up the nuclear agreement – compounding the issues surrounding a multilateral approach to the problem. Further, this also conveyed the need for such an internationally hailed and pivotal agreement (the JCPOA) to come into place, then there must be buy-in on a multilateral level. As a result, it is clear that the effectiveness of policies adopted unilaterally, the US sanctions on Iran in this particular example, will be increasingly diluted as the international economic and political systems become increasingly globalised and interconnected with one another. This notion was realised when it came to July 2015 when the JCPOA noted that its implementation “will produce the comprehensive lifting of all UNSC sanctions as well as multilateral and national sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme.” The significant point here being that the sanctions were being referred to on a multilateral level, therefore demonstrating how cognisant the JCPOA was of the importance of adopting such a policy on multilateral and not just on a unilateral level.

Image: Secretary Kerry Chats With Energy Secretary Moniz As He and Fellow P5+1 Foreign Ministers Hold Nuclear Program Negotiating Session in Austria With Iranian Officials, courtesy of State Department Photo/ Public Domain.